Wayne Gretzky is the best hockey player who has ever played, which makes it surprising for people to learn that he did not get drafted into the NHL.
Why did Gretzky not get drafted into the NHL? Gretzky started his professional career at the age of 17 in a rival league to the NHL called the World Hockey Association (WHA). The WHA merged the next year into the NHL bringing Gretzky along with them.Embed from Getty Images
It is a ‘great’ story of how the Great One got to the NHL. Let’s look at it more in depth
The story all starts in his junior hockey career…
Wayne Gretzky was a hockey prodigy for his entire life. He was breaking records and dominating leagues wherever he went.
As a 16/17 year old he played his last amateur hockey in the Ontario Hockey League with the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds (or, Soo, for short).
Well he was with the Soo in his only year he scored 182 points in 63 games.
After one year of playing in junior he was already too good for the league, and, remember, he was still only 17.
He wanted to play a higher level of hockey, however….
The NHL did not allow anyone to play that was under 20 years old
At the time Gretzky was in junior the NHL had a rule that nobody could play in the league until they were 20 years old – the current rule limits it to players 18 years and older.
Gretzky wanted stronger competition, but if he was going to play in the NHL he would have to play junior for 3 more seasons.
That was clearly not the best development for his hockey career.
So what was Wayne supposed to do?
Gretzky signed with another professional hockey league – the World Hockey Association
The NHL was not going to change their rules, and Gretzky wanted to play professional hockey so he looked at other professional hockey leagues other than the NHL.
He could have gone to Europe, but why go all the way over there when there was another professional hockey league in your own backyard – the World Hockey Association (WHA).
For those of you who are not familiar, the WHA started in 1972 as a rival to the NHL. Some teams that came from the WHA include the Winnipeg Jets (now the Coyotes), Hartford Whalers (now the Hurricanes), and the Edmonton Oilers.
The WHA had no problem signing players that were under 20 years old, and had used this tactic many times before.
They used this tactic to lure Gretzky to the WHA and he signed a personal services contract with Nelson Skalbania (owner) to play for the Indianapolis Racers in June of 1978.
In his first (and only) WHA season in 1978-79 Gretzky only played 8 games with the Racers, who were in financial trouble and sold his contract to the Edmonton Oilers. Gretzky would play the remaining 72 games with the Oilers that year.
WHA merger: Edmonton Oilers become part of the NHL (along with Wayne)
The Indianapolis Racers were not the only ones in financial trouble – the whole WHA was as well. There had been talks of a merger between the WHA and the NHL for over a year, and in early 1979 four teams from the WHA agreed to merge with the NHL.
One of those four teams that merged into the NHL were the Edmonton Oilers along with Wayne Gretzky.Embed from Getty Images
The WHA was able to negotiate some concessions as they entered into the NHL.
One of those concessions was that the WHA teams were allowed to each keep two skaters and two goalies so the NHL teams did not strip their teams bare.
But Gretzky was still only 19, how could he play in the NHL?
A change the NHL made with the merger of the WHA was to lower the minimum draft age from 20 to 19, and allow any underage players who had already played in the WHA – this gave Wayne the path he needed into the NHL.
After the merger Gretzky was to re-enter the draft
Even though the Oilers were able to protect two players the NHL-WHA merger agreement was to have Gretzky re-enter the draft, and be eligible for the 1979 draft.
However, Gretzky had a personal services contract with Peter Pocklington, which the NHL originally thought would be voided at the merger.
Gretzky refused to void the contract, because he didn’t want to reenter the draft, and be taken by the lowly Colorado Rockies.
A compromise was reached were the Oilers got to keep Gretzky, and the were placed at the bottom of the draft order in the 1979 entry draft.
Therefore, Gretzky went undrafted….
By entering the NHL through the WHA merger, Gretzky never entered the NHL draft.
It is hard to imagine that the best player who ever played in the NHL was never drafted, but it wasn’t because the teams didn’t recognize his talent (if that thought ever crossed someone’s mind).
It was because Gretzky was too good, and became a professional hockey player as a teenager that led him to his undrafted status!